Peter Ross at Large: Back in suffragette city

YESTERDAY afternoon in Edinburgh, a tall and striking young woman of 22 with bobbed red hair and a deep green crushed velvet cloak, like something out of a Rossetti painting, is marching through the Meadows and singing about liberation, anger, and bringing the system down.

"We've justice at our feet as we march down Princes Street," she sings, swinging hips and head. "Men and women shall be equal in this land."

Well, in fact, what with the tram works, Hazel Streeter won't be walking down Princes Street, but the sentiment of the song still holds true for her and approximately 3,000 other women on the Gude Cause Procession. Many are dressed in the fashions of the early 20th century, big bonnets and hats that seem to be made entirely from lace doilies. "The charity shops did well out of us!" hoots vision in white Mary Boloy, 80, who has come from Stirling.

Gude Cause is a reenactment of a protest march which took place on Princes Street on 10 October 1909, when women took to the cobbles to demand the right to vote; it takes its name from a banner held on that day – A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Arm. Now, like then, Edinburgh has been transformed into Suffragette City. Women from all over Scotland have travelled here.

Emily Turnbull, 11, and sister Maria, nine, are local, and are here because Emily has been reading about the suffragettes in the school holidays. "Lots of people went to jail for it," she says from within her headscarf, as Maria twirls a parasol, "and at the end a lady had to kill herself so that people would notice." Emily wanted to show that her namesake, the martyr Emily Davison, who in 1913 threw herself under the King's horse at the Derby, was not forgotten.

Gude Cause has attracted women from all classes and political stripes, among them Nats, Trots, the Scottish Women's Rural Institute and the Auld Reekie Roller Girls, who zoom along Melville Drive on skates while one of their number, Juicy Lucy, proclaims, "We're the future of feminism!" Meanwhile, Marianne Hendry, from a group called Damned Rebel Bitches, based at Tollcross Community Centre, explains their simple reason for being here: "We're feisty women." Asked her age, she says 66 and laughs, "I wasn't a suffragette, no' quite. But I remember when I was growing up, I was sick of the way my mother ran after my dad all the time. I swore that when I grew up I'd never do that, and I never have."

The march is led by piper Louise Marshall Millington, and two mounted policewomen. The crowds enjoy the spectacle and support the message. On Teviot Place two gleeful old women jump up and down. "Isn't this marvellous?" they cry. On North Bridge, the reception is less warm. "Cannae get a f***in' bus fur yees!" growls a middle-aged woman .

The original procession, which featured a number of floats showing Mary Queen of Scots and other historical heroines, was led by Flora Drummond, a frustrated postmistress from Arran known as "The General". She shocked the locals by riding astride her horse, carrying a whip, and affecting quasi-military dress. Drummond was the same height as Kylie Minogue, and had the approximate shape, density and forward momentum of a curling stane.

The historical record notes that the suffragettes were regarded by onlookers, who stood ten deep on the pavement outside Jenners, with a mix of fascination and outright hostility. Flour was flung, speakers were heckled, and a man in the crowd remarked: "There'll be lots o' pair chaps the nicht, wha'll need to mak' their ain tea." This, of course, is atypical of Edinburgh, where the assumption is always that one has had one's tea already.

These Scottish suffragettes were remarkable and vivid. The movement has tended to be seen and taught as an English phenomenon, but Scotland was key to the fight for the franchise; two million signatures demanding the right to vote were collected here. Scots were among the most militant of campaigners. A favourite publicity stunt was to pour acid on golf courses, though today the putting green on Bruntsfield Links goes unmolested.

Ethel Moorhead from Dundee was 40 in 1909. An accomplished window-smasher and hunger-striker, famed for throwing eggs at Winston Churchill. She was treated brutally and force-fed in the Calton Jail, and the food got into her lungs, causing double-pneumonia. On her release, in retribution, Whitekirk, a medieval church in East Lothian, was set on fire.

There were a number of arson attacks associated with the Scottish suffragettes. The stand at Ayr racecourse and the pavilion of Perthshire Cricket Club went up in smoke, and a firebomb gutted a classroom in Fettes College. Ethel Moorhead and her friend Fanny Parker even attempted to set fire to Burns's cottage in Alloway; the suffragettes seem not to have been in sympathy with Burns, whose attitude to women was suspect, having freely adapted one of his most famous songs as The Right To Vote An' A' That.

That song is likely to have been sung in 1909 and is sung again today. It's an interesting concept, reenacting a protest march. It seems whimsical at first – what's the point of recreating a call for suffrage when women have had the vote since 1928? But, actually, it's much more logical than the more familiar concept of battle reenactment. Battles tend to be fought to force or prevent a physical advance, whereas protest marches are essentially ideas made flesh, so there's no reason they shouldn't be reenacted time and again provided the idea itself is still relevant.

In this case, the idea is not simply suffrage, it's equality between the sexes and a desire that women should reengage with politics. The suffragettes wanted votes for women; these reenactors want women to value and use the votes for which their great grannies fought. Gude Cause was prompted by a poll which suggested that fewer than 45 per cent of women who were registered to vote were planning to do so at the 2007 Holyrood election, an election which resulted in fewer female MSPs being elected than in 2003 or 1999.

Great strides have been made since 1909, of course, and Fiona Hyslop, at the front of the march, tells me how remarkable she finds it that the site of Calton Jail, where suffragettes were imprisoned and force-fed, is now the site of St Andrew's House in which she and other women are government ministers.

There's a feeling, though, that in Scotland we're going backwards. But organisers hope that Gude Cause will politicise a new generation, that the radicalism it celebrates will prove highly infectious among young women – a sort of quine flu. It seems to be working. "I've never voted before. I didn't understand politics," says Amanda Alston, 25, from Grangemouth. "But now I've learned about the suffragettes, and the horrible way they were punished, I definitely will vote at the next election."

"Everyone's reading something different into this march," says Marylou Anderson, 32, a youth worker from Burntisland, who has been overseeing the making of banners. "I don't see it as strictly a reenactment at all. The idea has grown. For me it's highlighting what's going on in the world and what has still to be achieved."

She mentions the need for women to stop thinking their path through life must mean meeting the perfect man and having children, while also trying to sustain a career. Lots of the other marchers mention this work-life balance, as well as sexual violence, and the continuing pay gap between the genders. "Why do men have such big packets?" asks one placard."

Many of the banners are green, white and purple – the colours of the Women's Social and Political Union, the militant group founded by the Pankhursts. Green stood for hope, white for purity, and purple for "the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette". The colours were also chosen with a view to how striking they would look en masse. The WSPU were very aware of image and what we would now call spin. That is perhaps why the suffragette "brand" is still strong.

There's something about the disparity between the formal Edwardian clothes and the sometimes aggressive direct action of the women wearing them that continues to inspire protestors. The eco-awareness group Climate Rush last month dumped horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson's drive while dressed as suffragettes. In March, Leila Deen, of anti-aviation campaigners Plane Stupid, compared herself to a suffragette after throwing green custard over Peter Mandelson.

Some marchers have more personal motives. On the Royal Mile Marsali Taylor, 50, shows me a small gold badge on her left lapel and explains that she has travelled here from Shetland to honour the woman to whom it belonged. When she was growing up, Ysabel Birbick was an old lady she called aunty. Later, Taylor discovered she had been an ambulance driver in the first world war, working in Serbia for an all-women medical unit run by Edinburgh's Dr Elsie Inglis and funded by Scottish suffragettes. She won a medal for changing a tyre under machine gun fire. So Taylor is here to remember Birbick and is having an emotional day. "It's nice to be able to come out and show we appreciate what all those women did for us," she says.

Then the music starts up again and the procession heads for Calton Hill. "Votes for women, it's just the beginning," they sing. "You haven't seen anything yet."